Israel called on the United States yesterday to break off its dialogue with the Palestine Liberation Organization following an abortive terrorist attack on an Israeli beach resort, and U.S. officials said privately that the incident could lead to a halt in contacts that have gone on in Tunis since December 1988.
State Department spokesman Margaret Tutwiler said the U.S. government was "horrified" by the attempted commando action, and she added that if Israeli allegations about the PLO being behind the attack are true, "we would view this as a very serious matter." However, she said, no decisions would be made about U.S. responses until U.S. officials are able to examine the evidence and ask the PLO for an explanation.
Other U.S. officials, who asked not to be identified, said that what one called "an unprecedented and serious new dimension" had been added to the situation by the fact that a faction of the PLO, the Palestine Liberation Front headed by PLO executive committee member Abul Abbas, apparently has asserted responsibility for the raid.
The State Department said in a controversial report released March 19 that it had "no evidence" that earlier attacks against Israel "were authorized or approved" by PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat or the 15-member PLO executive committee that represents all groups in the umbrella organization.
Abul Abbas's involvement in yesterday's incident would be regarded in this country as particularly reprehensible because his Iraq-based group carried out the 1985 hijacking of the Italian liner Achille Lauro, in which an American passenger, Leon Klinghoffer, was killed.
U.S. and Israeli sources said that the Israeli government contended there was no doubt about the Abul Abbas group's involvement, and called in strong terms for the United States to terminate the dialogue authorized by former president Ronald Reagan in December 1988 after Arafat renounced terrorism and recognized Israel's right to exist.
The sources said that in high-level contacts here and in Jerusalem the Israelis had reminded U.S. officials of the message delivered to the PLO by Robert Pelletreau, the U.S. ambassador in Tunisia, at the outset of the dialogue. It said that in the event of terrorism, the United States expects that the PLO will condemn the action publicly and discipline the group responsible by, at a minimum, expelling it from the PLO.
American Jewish groups supported the Israeli position. Seymour D. Reich, chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said, "It is time for our government to reassess its policy of talking to the PLO." Abraham Foxman, national director of the B'nai B'rith Anti-Defamation League, said, "An evaluation of the facts should mandate cancellation of the talks with the PLO . . . ."
Nine members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, led by Rep. Mel Levine (D-Calif.), sent a telegram to Secretary of State James A. Baker III last night, calling the incident "an unambiguous violation of the PLO commitment" and arguing that U.S. credibility requires the administration to insist that Arafat denounce Abul Abbas and move to expel him from the PLO executive committee.